Was the apostle Paul executed by being boiled in hot oil?

Q. Is there any historical evidence that Apostle Paul was boiled in hot oil?

The Bible doesn’t tell us about the means or circumstances of Paul’s death. But it does preserve this statement in his second letter to Timothy: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near.” Most interpreters understand this to mean that Paul expected to be executed for his faith at the conclusion of his trial in Rome under emperor Nero in the AD 60s.

Some traditional accounts provide further details. The Acts of Paul, an apocryphal work written around the middle of the second century, says that Nero condemned him to death by beheading. A lively legend makes this detail seem accurate: One ancient story about why a certain location in Rome is called the “Three Fountains” is that when Paul was beheaded, his head bounced on the ground three times and a fountain sprang up from each spot. Though the story is fanciful, it would probably never have gotten into circulation if it were known that Paul had been executed some other way, and so it suggests that Paul indeed was beheaded. We can have greater confidence in the work of Eusebius, a very careful researcher, who wrote early in the fourth century in his Ecclesiastical History, “It is … recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself … during Nero’s reign.”

There is a tradition that associates a different apostle with boiling in oil, however. Likely around the end of the second century, Tertullian wrote in The Prescription of Heretics that the apostle John was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil in the Colosseum, but he suffered no ill effects from what would otherwise have been a gruesome method of execution, and so his sentence was commuted to banishment. We cannot corroborate Tertullian’s report. But it does show, along with the accounts of the sufferings and executions of the other apostles, that the first followers of Jesus stayed loyal to him right to the death, even if this meant enduring the worst tortures that the Romans might inflict.

The Gospel of Matthew as a graphic novel

Simon Amadeus Pillario, the artist who’s creating the Word for Word Bible Comic series of graphic novels, has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to help him complete the next volume in the series, the Gospel of Matthew. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am a biblical-theological consultant to this project (unpaid), and so I get an inside view of its workings and an advance glimpse of its progress. I must say that I’m just as excited about this next book as I have been about all the others, right from the start: Judges, Ruth, Mark, Joshua, and Esther. Let me give you a little peek into how this next volume is shaping up, and I think you’ll be excited too.

First, as always, biblical scenes are depicted in the comic based on painstaking historical research, so that the customs, clothing, buildings, means of transportation, etc. are all shown accurately and faithfully to the actual events. As I said in my very first post about this series, “One might argue that this is actually a more authentic presentation of the Bible than our bare printed texts, which invite us to fill a visual vacuum by supplying pictures in our own imagination of people and events. We tend to do this as if they happened in our own time and place, or else in a generic ‘Bible world’ where nothing really changes culturally from Abraham to Paul. This series instead brings the reader very authentically back into the specific cultural world in which each story originated, through careful archaeological research.” Here, for example, is a detail from the scene in which the forthcoming Matthew comic shows Joseph “taking Mary home” to be his wife:

But because of this concern for historical authenticity, in some cases the comic has to make reasonable judgements about the likely historical background to certain episodes. For example, all Matthew tells us is that Joseph and Mary went to “Egypt” with Jesus when they fled from Herod. However, one short episode in the gospel takes place during their time of flight, and it has to be set somewhere. Where should that be? The comic places the family in Alexandria. Readers of this blog will know that that’s exactly where I think they stayed (see my post, “Where did Jesus live in Egypt?“), so naturally I think that is fair enough. Here’s the panel showing the location, with the famous lighthouse in the background:

Also in this next volume, the artist continues to demonstrate delightful and amazing creativity in presenting the text of Scripture visually. For example, consider what he does with Jesus’ genealogy—just a list of names, right? No, each figure in the genealogy is accompanied by a little picture that captures a key moment in his life. I have to admit that I had a lot of fun trying to determine what was going on in each picture, based on how the person’s story is told in the Old Testament. Isaac, for example (the second from the left in the top row in the panel just below), with eyesight failing him in old age, is trying to figure out whether Esau or Jacob stands before him asking for his blessing. The three sections of this genealogy are shown on three separate panels of the comic, so that the visual presentation also respects the literary structure.

One more thing to add about the Gospel of Matthew in the Word for Word Bible Comic is that it will use the New International Version (NIV). Previous volumes used the World English Bible, which is in the public domain, but the artist has gone to great lengths to address the concerns of the people who license the NIV so that the comic can now feature a translation that is itself acknowledged and trusted for its accuracy and reliability. I recognize that the licensors are expressing a real vote of confidence in this project by allowing the NIV to be used with necessary alterations such as the removal of quotation marks and formatting required for the printed page, as well as adaptations for the graphic novel format such as adding emphasis by using bold type or all caps, and replacing commas with ellipses that connect speech bubbles.

At this point I’m sure you’d love to see more, and you can—you can download a PDF sampler of the Gospel of Matthew in the Word for Word Bible Comic here. And you can see everything that’s happening in the Kickstarter campaign at this link. I invite you to support the campaign and become a part of this project!

Why did Jesus tell Mary not to hug him after his resurrection?

Q. Why did Jesus tell Mary not to hug him after his resurrection because he hadn’t yet returned to the Father? Why would Jesus object to Mary clinging to him … that is really puzzling. You would think he would have reciprocated with a bear hug for about an hour, if only for her sake. What’s the connection between the return to the Father and not clinging to him?

Fra Angelico, ‘Noli Me Tangere’ (c. 1438–50)

This is indeed a puzzling matter, and interpreters have offered many different explanations for it. Personally I like the way that Raymond Brown explains it in his commentary on the Gospel of John.

Brown suggests, first of all, that when Jesus tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father,” we should not think he is speaking of the ascension that Luke describes as taking place forty days after the resurrection. Brown feels that that particular event, in which Jesus was seen ascending on the clouds into heaven, was intended to indicate evocatively that the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus had come to an end. Brown believes that Jesus also went to be with the Father in less visible ways in between his appearances to the disciples. The first of those times would have been right after the resurrection, and Mary would have seen him, in effect, on his way there.

As Brown understands it, this timing is actually crucial to the point John is making. At the Last Supper, Jesus had said, “I will come back to you. In a little while the world will see me no longer, but you will see me.” Brown says that when Mary sees Jesus, “she thinks that he has returned as he promised and now he will stay with her and his other followers, resuming former relationships.” Jesus had also said, “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Brown says that Mary is “trying to hold on to the source of her joy, since she mistakes an appearance of the risen Jesus for his permanent presence with his disciples.” But instead, by “telling her not to hold on to him, Jesus indicates that his permanent presence is not by way of appearances but by way of the gift of the Spirit that can only come after he has ascended to the Father.” (Jesus had also told his followers at the Last Supper, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”)

So Jesus is basically saying to Mary, “I’m not on my way back from the Father” (this is not what my continuing presence with you will be like), “I’m on my way to the Father” (so that I can send the Spirit, who will be my continuing presence with you). So this would be yet another place in the Gospel of John where a person mistakes a physical reality for a spiritual one and Jesus needs to explain otherwise (as in the case of Nicodemus misunderstanding what it means to be “born again,” for example, or the woman at the well misunderstanding what Jesus meant by “living water,” and so forth).

Brown argues convincingly that the present imperative used here means “don’t cling to me” or “don’t hold on to me” rather than “don’t touch me.” So this isn’t an issue of what Jesus’ post-resurrection, pre-ascension body was like and how it could or couldn’t interact with earthly bodies. Rather, the issue is that Jesus’ followers are not to “cling to” him as they knew him on this earth, but rather experience his continuing presence through the Spirit he has sent from the Father.

Why does Jesus sometimes seem to give certain disciples special treatment?

Q. Jesus has Peter, James, and John join Him to observe the Transfiguration. Why only these three? And, elsewhere Jesus seems to choose only certain disciples to reveal truth to and not others. So, how can we understand this? Obviously, it’s not favoritism, but maybe cliques are not all bad?

You’re right that Jesus allowed Peter, James, and John to see some parts of his ministry firsthand that the other disciples didn’t get to see. According to Mark, for example, Jesus brought only the three of them with him not just to the mountain of the Transfiguration, but also to the home of Jairus, whose daughter he raised from the dead, and apart with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mark also specifies that it was Peter, James, and John who asked Jesus what he meant about the temple being destroyed, prompting what is known as the Olivet Discourse (Jesus’ long teaching about the signs of the end).

You’re also right that different disciples seems to be singled out at other times for teaching and attention. According to John, for example, before Jesus fed the five thousand, he asked Philip where they could get bread to feed the large crowd. John explains that Jesus “asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.” We should understand the word “test” in the sense of “challenge”; it wasn’t the case that Philip had to give a good answer or he couldn’t be a disciple any more! Rather, Jesus saw a “teachable moment” and made use of it for Philip’s advantage.

I also agree with you that this isn’t favoritism. Rather, Jesus chose to make an effective and strategic investment in specific disciples at specific times for their development as his followers and as future leaders. It’s generally accepted that someone can only have a deep influence on two or three other people at a given time. But they can have a strong influence on about a further dozen people. We see this illustrated and perhaps modeled for us in the example of Jesus.

I’m not sure I’d use the word clique, since that word tends to have a negative connotation. People in a clique are more opposed to including others than they should be. Let’s just say that Jesus shows us how to be intentional in our discipleship of others by recognizing where and how we can invest most effectively.

Did Joseph and Mary take Jesus to Egypt because they could blend in there?

Q. Is there any truth in saying that Joseph took Mary and the young child to Egypt, since Herod was searching for him, because they would have been able to fit in there without being detected, based on the color of their skin? Some people think so.

I think the main reason that Joseph and Mary went to Egypt as a place where Jesus would be safe from Herod is that there was already a large Jewish community there, particularly in the city of Alexandria, and so they would have been able to find housing and work within that community, or at least with its help, for as long as they needed to stay. (Please see my fuller comments in this post: Where did Jesus live in Egypt?)

In terms of skin color, really anyone who went to Egypt at this time would have “fit in,” because people had long been coming there from Sub-Saharan Africa, farther west in northern Africa, and the Middle East, and so it was a place where people of many different skin colors lived together and interacted. The Egyptians, really like all ethnic groups, had a variety of skin tones themselves. So Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, whatever their own skin color was, would have blended in not because they looked like everybody else, but because nobody looked quite like anybody else, and so nobody stood out.

(As for what skin tone Joseph, Mary, and Jesus might actually have had, for one possibility, please see the icon I use as an illustration for this post: How long did Jesus live in Egypt? But of course no one knows for certain. First-century Jews themselves had a variety of skin tones. But I think this is good; we can all imagine Jesus looking a lot like us, and this helps us understand that he came to this world and became human like us in order to be our Savior.)

 

How many wise men came to see Jesus?

Q. How many wise men were there that came looking for Jesus?

The Bible doesn’t tell us how many there were. Matthew says in his account simply that “wise men from the east came to Jerusalem” and asked where the newborn king was. After that he just calls them “the wise men” or refers to them as “they” and “them.”

Traditionally it has been considered that there were three wise men because the Bible describes how they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s possible that there were three and that each one brought one of these gifts separately. But it’s also possible that there were more than three and that each one brought one or more of the gifts listed.

The names Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior attributed to the “three wise men” reflect later tradition. As I said, the Bible doesn’t tell us how many there were, and it doesn’t tell us any of their names.

How do you “honor father and mother” in a toxic and abusive family?

Q. How does one “honor their father and mother” in a toxic and abusive family? I’ve been abused and suffered much damage from my parents. I  feel so unsafe around them that I’ve had to put up boundaries such as never being alone with them. Neither of my parents are repentant or acknowledge that they have done anything wrong. Instead, my mother uses Jesus as a means to manipulate others and shame them for being bad Christians if they don’t do what she wants them to. How do I “honor father and mother” in this situation? It doesn’t matter to me any more that my parents won’t acknowledge their wrongdoings. I just want to love Jesus and love others. But I’m not sure what that looks like in this context.

Thank you very much for your question. During my years a pastor, I unfortunately encountered similar situations. However, out of those situations, I can offer you great encouragement. I have seen Christian women and men escape from the cycle of abuse, heal from the damage they suffered, become free from bitterness, and ultimately exhibit a gracious and loving spirit, honoring their parents from a safe distance in appropriate and healthy ways as a way of honoring God. I already hear something of that gracious spirit in your question, so I think you are on your way there yourself. Let me offer some further thoughts to help you along your way.

First, you are very wise to establish boundaries with your parents. You are not honoring them if you make yourself available to them to allow them to continue acting in a way so contrary to God’s intentions. Honoring them means recognizing who God created them to be and relating to them as those people—even if this means, for now, simply taking away an opportunity for them not to act like those people.

I hope you are getting some good counsel or reading some good books about establishing healthy interpersonal boundaries. This was not modeled for you in your family, so you will need to learn it as a new skill. I should warn you that in any unhealthy system (such as a toxic family), the person who points out that there’s a problem is considered to be the problem. So your boundary-setting resolve will likely be misunderstood and resisted, and you will be falsely accused of having other motives. But stick to it. Create a healthy space for yourself in life.

Second, you will need to forgive your parents. This will be good for your own soul and your relationship with God, since Jesus told us, “Forgive as you have been forgiven.” It will also be good for your health and peace of mind, since bitterness is a toxin that insidiously poisons anyone who hangs on to it. But this will also be good for your parents, too. When we forgive someone, we “let go” of what they’ve done to us. This actually frees them from being frozen in our minds and wills as the people who did that, and I believe it makes grace available to them to change. This is a further way of honoring your father and mother by helping them become the people God created them to be.

In terms of the practicalities of forgiveness, I invite you to read this post, which I wrote in response to a question that was similar to yours. Please consider the main points I make there: (1) Forgiving someone doesn’t mean letting them hurt you all over again; (2) Forgiveness is an act of the will that must be completed by emotional work; (3) Forgiveness is not a substitute for establishing personal boundaries; (4) Forgiveness takes one, reconciliation takes two.

Third, I hope that you have found (or can find) a loving and supporting community in which you can heal and grow into the person God created you to be. I encourage you to get counsel or read books about family systems and about abuse—including spiritual abuse, which seems to be your mother’s preferred means of control and manipulation. Recognize the people in your life who are able to see you as God sees you, and come to see yourself through their eyes. Believe what they are telling you about yourself. This is a means that the Holy Spirit will use to erase the negative voices and accusations in your head and replace them with gracious, life-giving truths.

Finally, under safe conditions, when you are ready, look for the ways God might show you in which you can “honor” your parents through practical means. It’s interesting that the only application Jesus ever made in his teaching of the commandment to honor father and mother was to care and provide for one’s parents in their old age. I have seen Christian men and women who were healed, freed from bitterness, and safely established behind healthy boundaries re-engage abusive parents in this way—putting on a 50th-anniversary celebration, for example, or seeing that repairs and maintenance were needed in the family home and arranging for this and helping to pay for it. These things were done not because of guilt and manipulation on the parents’ part, but because adult children wanted to honor their parents as a way of honoring the Lord.

I trust that these same things will be seen in your life as you come to understand more and more about your Heavenly Father’s love for you, find healing and freedom in that love, and so come to have compassion on your earthly father and mother.

What does it mean to “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit”?

Q. I would appreciate your teachings on “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven.” Thank you.

Please see this post for an explanation of that statement:

Have I committed the unpardonable sin?

In that post I say, among other things, “The ‘unpardonable sin’ that Jesus talks about (as recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke)”—also described as “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”—is “the act of attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan. The reason this sin ‘can’t be forgiven’ is not because the person has done something so bad that it’s beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. The Bible stresses that Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient for the forgiveness of any and all sins that any human being might commit. Rather, if we attribute the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan, then this will make us resist the work of the Holy Spirit, and His gracious influences will not be able to bring us to repentance and salvation. In other words, Jesus isn’t saying that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. He’s saying that it can not be forgiven, because it separates us from the very influence that’s meant to lead us to forgiveness.”

That is, the statement is descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s describing the position that people put themselves in when they try to dismiss Jesus and his teachings by saying that they come from an evil source. It’s not saying that God will permanently take the attitude of “no forgiveness” towards someone who happens to say or think a certain thing. I hope this is helpful; please see the rest of the post for a fuller discussion.

Why does God say in a couple of places in the Bible that He won’t forgive?

Q. Why did the Lord say, when he was instructing the Israelites about the angel he was sending ahead of them in the wilderness, that if they didn’t obey, the angel (acting on God’s authority) would not forgive them? And why did Jesus say, after teaching his disciples the Lord’s prayer, that if we don’t forgive, the Lord in heaven will not forgive our transgressions?

I can understand why you are puzzled about these passages, because the Bible teaches generally that God’s disposition towards us is always to forgive us and restore us when we confess our sins. So why would the Bible say in a couple of places that God will not forgive us? I think there’s actually something more than meets the eye going on in both passages.

To consider the case of the angel first, there’s a verb in Hebrew that means “to lift up and take away.” It might be used, for example, in a case where someone picks something up and carries it off. However, this verb is also used just to mean “lift up,” that is, to carry or bear; or just to mean “take away.” It’s often used in that second sense to refer to forgiven sin. For example, Nathan says to David after he confesses his wrong, “The Lord has taken away your sin.” That’s the NIV translation, and it brings out the literal sense of the word. Ten other versions, however, say what it signifies, for example, the NET: “The Lord has forgiven your sin.”

Many translations also see this second sense in the passage about the angel who will go ahead of the Israelites in the wilderness. For example, the NIV reads: “Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.” However, it seems to me that in the context, the first limited meaning, “carry or bear,” could well be intended instead. As the CEV (Contemporary English Version) puts it, “Carefully obey everything the angel says, because I am giving him complete authority, and he won’t tolerate rebellion.” So the meaning is not so much that sins won’t be forgiven, it’s that disobedience will be punished. And that’s what we see happen over and over again throughout the Israelites’ wilderness journey. Forgiveness of sin was still available through the sacrifices for sin that the law prescribed, but there were still consequences for sin. (Just as David’s sin was forgiven, but he nevertheless experienced consequences in his own life.)

As for what Jesus says, right after teaching the Lord’s Prayer, about God not forgiving us if we won’t forgive others, the rationale for this is explained well in the parable he later told about a servant who was forgiven a great debt by his own master, but who then went right out and insisted on repayment of a small debt by one of his fellow servants. When the other man couldn’t pay him, he had him thrown in prison. When the master heard  about this, he brought the first servant back in and demanded, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” And the master had the first servant thrown in prison.

So once again we understand the meaning from the context: The background is that we ourselves have first been forgiven all of our sins by God. In light of this, we should certainly forgive other people who wrong or offend us. But if we won’t do that, then what claim can we make on God’s mercy? We’re asking to be treated in a way we’re not prepared to treat others. And God simply says in response, “Have it your way.” So it’s not so much that we have to meet a certain condition to get God’s forgiveness, it’s that because we’ve already been forgiven, we should forgive others.

I hope these observations are helpful.

 

Were Adam and Eve historical, and if so, does this require a young earth?

Q. Do you believe in a historical Adam and Eve? If one does, do they need to believe in a young earth?

Please see this post for my thoughts on whether Adam was necessarily a historical individual. In that post I observe, among other things, that “the Hebrew word ‘adam is used in an intriguing variety of ways in the book of Genesis, where it figures prominently in the opening narratives. Sometimes it seems indeed to be the name of a single historical individual, as in this statement: ‘When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.’ But in other contexts (in fact, in the immediately preceding statement), the term refers more generally to humanity as created in the image of God. Note how ‘adam in that statement takes both singular and plural pronouns, and embraces both male and female: ‘When God created ‘adam, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘adam when they were created.'”

In light of such considerations, I conclude that the Genesis narrative, and other Scriptures such as Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians and Romans about humanity being “in” Adam—the passages I address specifically in that other post, do not “require Adam to have been a historical individual. We need to make our mind up about that question on different grounds, and I think it’s fair and reasonable to bring scientific accounts of human origins into conversation with the Bible as we do so.”

But does someone who does conclude that Adam and Eve were historical individuals also have to believe in a young earth? I’m perhaps not the best person to offer a judgment about that, so let me just say that I know some people who do consider them to have been actual individuals but who do not believe in a young earth. Rather, these people I know are intrigued by the findings of anthropological genetic research that suggest that all modern humans are descended from a single female—someone scientists refer to informally as “Eve.” This does not mean that this woman was the only female human in existence at the time when she lived; the scientific perspective would be rather that her offspring survived while the lines descended from other early women died out. But these people I know suggest that God chose this “Eve” in some way to be the first bearer of the divine image, and so she was the first human “created in the image of God.”

Apparently all modern humans are also descended from the same man, although he didn’t necessarily live at the same time as “Eve.” Rather, once again, the lines descended from other early men would have died off while his offspring survived. I have no expertise in this field and for all I know the findings may have been updated since I last heard about them, so I would encourage you to search more about this topic if you’re interested. But the bottom line for our purposes here is that while I personally don’t feel that the Bible requires us to consider Adam and Eve to have been historical individuals, even if we do, that doesn’t necessarily commit us to a young earth.

(If you are interested in how issues of biblical interpretation relate to questions of the age of the earth and of the origins of humanity, you can also have a look at another blog of mine, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation.)